When Barbie Became Muslim

Growing up in Mexico City in the 90’s meant for me that I grew up in a completely different context from my parents. Since my parent’s generation did not have the luxury of foreign products, due to the economic restrictions on international goods, my parents grew up with yellow pencils made in Mexico and traditional ceramic and fabric dolls with braids and ribbons. Later, the economic shift towards neoliberal models and NAFTA brought along McDonald’s, Walmart and, of course, Barbie!

Mexican ribbon-dolls. Via Pinterest

By the time I was five, all I wanted was a Barbie. My parents, while disappointed, succumbed to TV advertising, peer pressure, and the crushing of the traditional doll artisan workshops in the country. One of the worse parts was that MATTEL did not bother “adapting” Barbie to her new home… American Barbie was sold in Mexico. She was blond (her “minority” friends were not introduced until much later), she wore mini-skirts in a country where women’s clothing was restricted in the most conservative states, and she had a boyfriend in a society that highly appreciated marriage and restricted women’s sexuality in a variety of ways. Yet by the time I was 10, I had many Barbie dolls and I used to get together with my friends to play and argue for who would have the privilege of playing the “blond Barbie.”

Many years later, after moving to Canada, I realized that the Barbie phenomenon was not only about Mexico being America’s unfortunate neighbour, but rather a global process of gendered colonization, or imperialism as some Latin Americans describe it, that continues to perpetuate particular cultural, racial and societal standards. Barbie has become the model that shapes the idea of dolls all over the world and that serves as cultural battle field across countries.

My first encounter with a counter-Barbie doll, aside from the fake Barbies sold in Mexico, was in my mosque.  One day one of my friend’s daughters brought along a black-haired Barbie doll that wore a black abaaya and a hijab.  She was not properly a “Barbie” doll; instead she was the popular Middle Easter version called Fulla. A couple of years ago, Safiyyah discussed Fulla on MMW, in a piece that focused on women’s body image and the doll market; yet, Fulla seems to still be many families’ first choice when it comes to toys for girls. In my mosque, some girls design their own Fulla outfits and among the most popular are niqabs, burqas and short skirts (under abaayas).

Fulla. Via The Muslim Times.

My friend and her husband viewed Fulla as a non-Western appropriate children’s doll. In an effort to avoid the Barbie-Mexico effect of adopting “foreign” values and accepting American endorsed ideas on gender, Fulla has been represented as Muslim women’s champion. And although Fulla is not well-known in Canada and other countries, many Muslim families, at least in my community, order Fulla from abroad to provide their daughters with a “better” role model than Barbie.

Fulla is said to be a “role model” not only because she dresses “appropriately,” but she also comes along with a prayer mat and women-appropriate careers such as Medicine or Education.

All in all, Fulla is said to be Barbie’s antithesis.   Her morals are highly appreciated because she reflects what a Muslim woman, as opposed to a non-Muslim, should be (modest, pious and family-oriented).  Fulla is meant to be so “perfect” that there has been a lot of discussion on what is the most appropriate way to represent her in a variety of settings (including in Saudi Arabia, where she has been sent to the back seat of the car.) Nonetheless, she is not everyone’s favorite. Some non-Muslims also have their own opinion on Fulla and the Muslim attitude towards Barbie, and it is often expressed in a way that perpetuates the “us” vs. the “other.”

Emel issue on Hijabi Barbie.  Via Ernie Khairina.

Yet, Fulla has a big problem… she is still a Barbie! Although not blond, Fulla is still whiter and seems to have the same bodily-incorrect measures that would prevent Barbie from walking. There are no African, Asian or East Asian Fullas, which continues to perpetuate a certain racial standard. She has not ventured into Engineering or a trip to the moon, and she dictates the rules of appropriateness and educates Muslim offspring.

Fulla is still a “playground” where others get to decide what little girls these days must learn and must become. Fulla does not counter the Barbie image, but rather adopts it. She is made to embody another stereotypical woman. It is not only about the body image, but also about the ideas that come along with a doll that is so well designed that it is said to counter American culture, to educate Muslim girls and to embody Muslim values.

Whereas Muslims count on Fulla to offer an alternative to what Barbie represents (which I still wonder if it is possible at all), Fulla and Barbie have become opponents in the same arena. Two female bodies representing particular ideas that are meant to be pass down to a younger generation of Muslim and non-Muslim girls. In some ways, and as my mom used to tell me, the days when dolls were meant to entertain boys and girls are gone. Today, dolls come along with their own ideological package and I fear for the next generation’s options when it comes to toys and role models.

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